LETTER: Renewable Energy Strategy Must Avoid Past Mistakes

NL needs to make the right decisions now to build a truly renewable future. Deadline for public feedback on the strategy is Thursday, Nov 4.

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Newfoundland and Labrador possess the potential to be a world leader in the development of renewable energy. The province’s 2007 energy plan suggested that there is 18,000 MW of renewable energy available for development. This is equivalent to the installed capacity of 22 Muskrat Falls Hydroelectric Projects. In fact, just by developing 25 percent of the ‘high potential’ wind energy regions in Newfoundland and Labrador we would be capable of supplying 20 percent of Canadian electricity.  

Yet despite this enormous potential, NL ranks dead last amongst Canadian provinces in installed wind and solar energy capacity. Meanwhile, renewable energy development by any stakeholder other than Newfoundland Hydro or Newfoundland Power, remains purposefully restricted by law. 

As researchers, scholars, and activists we are intrigued to see the provincial government launch a public consultation on the development of a renewable energy strategy. We want to see the public consultations deepened to become more meaningful. We also need to ensure that the resultant renewable energy strategy focuses on energy justice, community control, and avoiding the mistakes of the past. Empowering communities to make their own energy decisions based on needs and local preferences is truly participatory energy strategy—with far greater impacts than any online survey. 

With the completion of Muskrat Falls, almost 98% of provincial electricity will be generated by mega-hydro. The electricity-generation mix differs dramatically in Indigenous and remote communities along the Newfoundland and Labrador coast. Here, 20 isolated communities continue to rely almost exclusively upon diesel-generation—consuming in excess of 20 million litres of fuel annually. Indigenous communities in N.L. did not choose to depend on diesel-generators, but instead were forced from a lifestyle based on seasonal migration and climate adapted forms of housing, to permanent settlements and western forms of heating. To be clear, diesel-dependence and energy inequity in isolated communities is rooted in colonial decision-making. Research demonstrates the rampant extent of heat insecurity in isolated communities, per-capita greenhouse gas emissions for electricity generation which are 400% greater than the Canadian average, and the risk of fuel spills which degrade local environments and restrict access to traditional foods. In this light, massive restitution is required for Indigenous communities, and any provincial energy strategy must centre community ownership, control, and direct benefits as a result of renewable energies.

On the grid-connected scale, building more mega-hydro projects, like the proposed Gull Island project, are not the way forward. Mega-hydro projects not only contribute greatly to greenhouse gas emissions, but have massive localized environmental impacts, affecting fish and wildlife as well as Indigenous communities who rely on them. We have seen the negative impacts of mega-hydro in Muskrat Falls and it is more than clear we need to focus on other renewable energy resources instead.

Projects like the proposed Atlantic Loop, which would enhance electrical grid connectivity in the Atlantic Provinces, need to focus on investments in localized renewable energy and employment. A provincial renewable energy strategy needs to prioritize bringing the benefits of renewable energy to communities, working with Indigenous and local governments to ensure their rights are prioritized and respected. 

While the idea of exporting hydrogen as part of such a strategy is interesting, it is vital that the hydrogen be generated from truly renewable sources of energy (which does not include mega-hydro or hydrogen generated from natural gas). Indeed, there are significant differences in how hydrogen is separated for fuel purposes and many of the processes used are not “green.”

Community-led renewable energy has extensive potential for NL. Nova Scotia’s Community Feed-In-Tariff Policy offers a promising model for development. Here, a preferred price has been established for local renewable energy producers, majority equity ownership by communities is mandated, and projects must remain small (<10MW)—avoiding the social and ecological pitfalls of megaprojects. Leading research has demonstrated that COMFIT measures in Nova Scotia have led to social acceptance of wind energy being three times higher, and perceptions of negative health impacts being three times lower, in comparison to Ontario—which has focused on corporate-led patterns of renewable energy development and has restricted public participation. 

NL’s government needs to make the right decisions now to build a truly renewable future. This necessitates energy restitution in isolated communities, avoidance of mega-projects and damaging forms of hydrogen production, and a commitment to community-led development.

The deadline for public feedback on the strategy is Thursday, November 4th, and we encourage you to make your voices heard on this issue by visiting https://www.gov.nl.ca/releases/2021/iet/1014n01/

Dr. Nick Mercer, Post Doctoral Research Scholar, School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University

Conor Curtis, on behalf of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation

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